Elizabeth Ford took it as a compliment when a gym teacher walked into her music classroom and declared it smelled “like sweaty kids.” It meant she was doing something right, engaging her students in music, movement, and imagination.
A native of Pueblo now teaching in Colorado Springs, Ford is a 2008 graduate of Adams State University who was named the 2012 Exceptional New Alumna.
“Elizabeth does not simply teach children music; she teaches children through music, and in doing so instills joy, beauty, and wonder into each of their lives,” wrote Dr. Tracy Doyle on behalf of the entire Adams State Music Department faculty in nominating Ford for the award.
Ford will accept the award at the Adams State Homecoming Alumni Awards Banquet, Friday, Oct. 12. The banquet begins at 5:30 p.m.; tickets are available for $25 per person by phoning 719-587-7609, or 800-824-6494, ext. 8.
Doyle introduced Ford to the Orff Schulwerk method of teaching music, a highly experiential approach based on inquiry and exploration. Ford has gone on to complete two of the three levels of Orff Schulwerk and is a board member of the Rocky Mountain Orff Schulwerk Chapter. “I am very proud of her. She’s taken this very seriously,” Doyle added.
Developed in the 1920s by German composer Carl Orff and colleague Gunild Keetman, the Orff Approach is a “child-centered way of learning” that treats music as a basic system like language that every child can learn through a gentle and friendly approach. It utilizes materials that are “simple, basic, natural, and close to a child’s world of thought and fantasy.”
“I normally start with a concept or idea, then the children create building blocks,” Ford explained. For example, she might guide a class through composition of a rondo. The children will brainstorm lyrics, create their own music, and incorporate movement. “By the end of it, we have a huge composition.”
In her “ideal” class, she would present a piece of children’s literature and ask the group to create a musical based on it. “Someone would start composing music with a recorder, while someone else might write poetry. These would come together with original dances and body percussion. Every kid would do multiple things.”
What do Ford’s students learn in her music classes? Thinking skills, creativity, collaboration, questioning skills, movement, and leadership. “I never say ’no’ in my classroom,” she said.
Ford has successfully applied the Orff method in two very different Colorado Springs schools. For the first three years of her career, she taught elementary school music at a Title I school. (Title I provides federal funding to schools with low income student populations.)
“Those kids need music as a means of expressing themselves and developing creativity, and because they have access to so few extracurricular activities,” she said. “The kids could be rough, but I really learned classroom management. I’m in this for the kids. It’s all about building relationships. I thought I’d never love kids like I loved those kids, but I just love kids.”
Under her direction, the school’s choir grew from 13 members to 60. “I would cap the group size and still have a waiting list.”
“That can only be attributed to the quality of the teacher,” Doyle said. “She is loved and respected by her students, and she makes a difference every day they walk into her classroom.”
Ford saw similar results in her current position teaching pre-K-5 music at Discovery Canyon, a public, International Baccalaureate school. IB schools offer curricula with “global significance—for all students in all cultures.” Therefore, world music, her “new pet project,” is central in Ford’s classes and performances. She also enjoys working with multi-age groups, like her grade 3-5 handbell choir.
She said parents have given her the most meaningful feedback. One parent told her: “My kids don’t like music, don’t sing, don’t play an instrument. Why do they like your class?” Another asked, “Is it just me, or is my son more creative since taking your class?” The boy in question, a very athletic fourth grader, went on to hold the lead in the school musical and now wants to take voice lessons.
While Ford once aspired to become a singer and has also played saxophone and other woodwinds, she committed to a teaching career one summer during high school when she both directed a children’s choir and worked in community theatre. “Working with the choir, I was excited at the end of the day.”
Teaching is somewhat in her blood, as well. Her mother is a fourth grade teacher, while her dad is a watercolorist. Her first piano teacher was her uncle, Joe Savarino, a 1964 Adams State graduate who also majored in music.
“He would be excited I went to Adams State,” she said. She transferred to Adams State after one year at another university that wasn’t meeting her needs. “I really felt supported by my professors at Adams State. They were almost on the ‘friend’ level.
“The moment I walked on the Adams State campus, I felt a sense of community,” she said. “I still have a picture in my mind of the perfect fall day on campus.”
She appreciates that Dr. Chris Keitges recognized her interest and background in musical theatre and invited her to help choose music and conduct auditions for Adams State productions. Ford also “loved” Dr. John Taylor’s theatre classes and performed with Adams State’s Chamber Choir, Concert Choir, and 68 West.
Another important aspect of her undergraduate education was music clubs. Ford belonged to Adams’ student chapters of ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) and CMEA (Colorado Music Educators Association).
“Music clubs were really a big deal. We made it a priority to attend CMEA conventions as an entire club, and also were fortunate to perform at the conventions,” Ford said. “It helped us build connections. I felt I was becoming a professional.” She remains active in CMEA and says she would “never miss” the Adams State alumni receptions held in conjunction with the annual conventions.
During summers, Ford directs the musical that culminates VIP Camp, presented by Pueblo’s Steel City Theatre Company at the Pueblo School for Arts and Sciences. Geared to kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, the camp was conceived by Ford and SCTC’s managing director Andrea Garrett-Laughrey. With the Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church, Ford co-directs the choir, conducts the praise band, and presents theatre outreach.
In addition to completing the final of three levels in the Orff Method, Ford hopes to earn her master’s degree in the next few years, ideally in Salsburg, Austria.
“I am proud to be an Adams State graduate,” Ford said. “People in this field respect that.”